Theonomy is a view held by some Christians which argues that the Mosaic law should be applied in modern society. One of the things that some proponents of this view argue for is that atheists should be punished by governments for sharing their beliefs. Many theologians have argued for and against this belief, but I'll quote one that is critical of this view, the Free Church of Scotland, discussing the views of theonomist Greg Bahnsen:

[Bahnsen] believes the Confession to teach that the magistrate is to enforce the death penalty on those who are guilty of breaking "the first table of the law" – those who are judged to be atheists, blasphemers, heretics and schismatics (Theonomy, p.538,539). This is completely contrary to the Free Church's position which opposes persecution and favours toleration. [source]

The Free Church goes on to make a few biblical arguments in favor of its view of tolerance for atheists. I'm not sure, however, that those arguments are representative of all proponents of this sort of tolerance. So that's my question:

What is the biblical basis for allowing atheists to speak openly and freely in society?

Of course, there is some historical precedence for theonomist views; Thomas Aikenhead was hanged in 1697 at the insistence of the Church of Scotland on account of his atheistic or at least unorthodox beliefs. So I suspect that this question could be tackled from a historical perspective as well, since Christians since then have probably used the Bible to argue against such practices.

  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. Aug 27, 2016 at 18:26
  • 2
    I've voted to reopen based on revision 8. The original post was certainly not in keeping with this site's guidelines. Most of it would fit well as an answer to the opposite of this question, however.
    – user3961
    Aug 27, 2016 at 20:23
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    @masque Please see the types of questions that are within community guidelines. Your question has been edited to fit within one of those types. This should still lead to a useful answer for you.
    – user3961
    Aug 27, 2016 at 20:32
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    Did the OP express assent (or opposition) to the major edits to the question? If not, I think the deletion of the comments here was premature. Aug 28, 2016 at 14:08
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    @lee Kind of, from what I remember. He can still comment though. Masque, are you content with the question as it is now?
    – user3961
    Aug 28, 2016 at 14:59

1 Answer 1


On basic human psychology

Censoring someone doesn't change their beliefs; it just prevents them from expressing those beliefs where they will be caught. However, censoring someone will absolutely harden their heart against you. As someone who grew up atheist, I can absolutely tell you that I would have spent my entire young adult life in prison, protesting against such discrimination, and I would not have converted.

A change of heart does not occur in the face of force, but with love. Further, a change in behavior does not mean that a change of heart has occurred, but a change of heart will always result in a change of behavior.

On finding lost sheep

John 21:15
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."

Romans 10:14
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?

If our goal is to convert as many people as possible to Christianity, one of the first steps has to be to find the non-believers. When I was in college, this was really easy: put up fliers for a Christian event, and you would be accosted. Give out free coffee on a cold day in the name of our Lord, and you would be accosted. My most productive conversations with non-believers occurred during interactions like this. But what if it was literally illegal to express their views to me? Those interactions would never have occurred, and there would be fewer Christians today.

What would Jesus do?

Usually, when trying to find out what Jesus would do in a particular situation, we have to get abstract about his character and nature. This is not the case now; we know exactly what Jesus would do:

  1. Find the sinners.
  2. Engage the sinners in dialog.
  3. Engage in very public dialog with anyone and everyone, especially sinners.
  4. Eat with the sinners.
  5. Feed the sinners.
  6. Heal the sinners.
  7. Perform miracles for the sinners.
  8. Save the sinners from being stoned to death.
  9. Get accused of being a sinner by associating so much with them.
  10. Die for their sins.
  11. Forgive those who killed him as they were killing him.
  12. Conquer death.

(If necessary, I can chase down all the verses for those, but I shouldn't think it necessary.)

Jesus was all about engaging in very public dialog with people who were spiritually lost. At no point in the Bible does he try to censor anyone.


Acts 1:8
"...you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

John 4:9
For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.
Alternate: For Jews do not use dishes Samaritans have used.

On first reading of Acts, it seems odd that Jesus specifically mentions they have to witness in Samaria. But, in John we learn that Jews were extremely prejudiced against the Samaritans, to the point where they refused to even share dishes. In the ancient world, when Jews made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they would travel miles and miles out of their way just to avoid Samaria. In Acts, Jesus is essentially anticipating an argument. "The Lord said to the ends of the earth, but he surely didn't mean also those dirty Samaritans." Yes, we must love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Censorship is about as unloving as one can get short of physical violence.

Witnesses, not enforcers

Acts 1:8 also tells us our role, which we can also see in the Great Commission:

Matthew 18:19-20
"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

We are to be witnesses, disciplers, baptizers, and teachers. We are not enforcers of God's law. We are not judges. And even if we were, the only instance of censorship I remember from the Bible is when God ordered Joshua and the Israelites to kill every man, woman, child, and domesticated animal in Canaan who wasn't an Israelite because their pagan beliefs would corrupt the Israelites, and I'm pretty sure everyone can agree that we are not called to genocide.

Paul in Athens

Selections from Acts 17:22-34
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 28 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'

29 "Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill."

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject." 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.

-1 And then Paul and his followers destroyed all the pagan altars in the city.

Clearly, that last line is not in the Bible. Paul was: courteous regarding their beliefs ("I see that in every way you are very religious"); firm in his own convictions; and in a public debate with non-believers. After stating his position, some people sneered, and he let them. He converted those he could, taught them what he could, but recognized that it was not his responsibility to try and force anyone into a change of heart, or to censor them in any way.

Matthew 10:14
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.

  • in regards to your comment: "Censoring someone doesn't change their beliefs; it just prevents them from expressing those beliefs where they will be caught. However, censoring someone will absolutely harden their heart against you" This question was never asked to try and account and save those who already hold such false beliefs true. It is to save the many more generations to come who learn and adopt utter lies as basis for atheism.
    – masque
    Aug 27, 2016 at 20:18
  • Why would you base a biblical basis argument on an "axiom" that is not directly taken from the Bible? While I agree with your position of tolerance, this answer seems more to me to be your opinion loosely supported by some bible verses, and not an argument of biblical basis. Also, please do not confuse Paul's manner of courtesy for a respect of Hellenistic paganism. In his epistles (cf Romans 1, etc.), he clearly pronounces their condemnation.
    – Andrew
    Sep 1, 2016 at 12:59
  • @Andrew That was the OP's axiom (which has since been edited into oblivion), and I wanted to show, even assuming that axiom, the argument for atheist persecution didn't hold water. When I get some time, I'll probably edit it out to more accurately reflect the current question. You're right, while "respectful" and "courteous" are typically considered synonyms, "courteous" is more accurate in this instance.
    – Azuaron
    Sep 1, 2016 at 15:09

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